The Composition of High-Performing Teams

Music sheet

“Companies know that they dervice greater creativity and innovation from teamwork – but what, they wonder, makes a great team?” – Margaret Heffernan

A Team in Harmony

“We need to do that section again.  Bryan, you’re late in the second measure and the intonation in that final chord isn’t lining up. Your pitch is a little high.”

It was true. My colleague was right.

Our quartet had been rehearsing for over two hours. I was tired. It had already been a full day at work, followed by the gym, followed by dinner in the car on the way to rehearsal. It was now after 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday night. The pressure of the upcoming competition was starting to get to me.

“Ok, let’s do it again,” I said with a renewed sense of energy and urgency. “I’ll get it this time.”

Bryan Miles practicing in his group

I wish this is the part where told you how well it went when we played that part again…but, that’s not the case.  I didn’t get it.  We spent fifteen minutes more on that section and ended rehearsal for the evening.  As I packed up I knew it was on me to work that part on my own before our next rehearsal. I left rehearsal feeling frustrated with myself and a sinking feeling in my stomach.

In agile terms, I was the group’s major impediment at that moment.

We hear the term “high-performing team” thrown around everywhere: from conversations in the office (“We need to make our teams high performing”) to television (mostly referenced about sports teams) to articles and blog posts all over the web. This leaves many people with two big questions:

What, exactly, defines a high-performing team?
How can we, as coaches, help these teams develop?


In their book The Wisdom of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith define a team as  “A small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

Bryan Miles performing in a group

According to their research, high-performing teams display six key characteristics:

  • Small enough in numbers
  • Adequate levels of complementary skills
  • Truly meaningful purpose
  • Specific goal or goals
  • Clear working approach
  • Sense of mutual accountability

Of course, not all teams with these characteristics are “high-performing”. So, what defines a team as high-performing?

Peter Hawkins, a formidable voice in team coaching, explains:
“A team’s performance can best be understood through its ongoing ability to facilitate the creation of added value for the organization it is a part of, the organization’s investors, the team’s internal and external customers and supplier, its team members, the communities the team operates within, and the more than human world in which we reside.”

We know the environmental factors that must be present to create great teams, but in order for a team to be defined as high-performing, we need to look at the value they deliver.


Looking at the above brief interaction with my quartet (small team number), we exhibit several of the components of high-performing teams:

There is a strong sense of vision and purpose.  We have many defined goals as we prepare for future performances and competitions, we enter rehearsals with a plan to address specific issues and areas of concern, we regularly record ourselves during rehearsal, listen to the recordings, evaluate, take notes, and come to rehearsals with notes about what we heard and things we have to fix (meaningful purpose and goals).

We have many defined goals as we prepare for future performances and competitions.

Over time we have developed a sense of security and safety in the group. We are open to discussing new and differing ideas; we have created an environment where we appreciate candid feedback even if it is hard to both give and receive; we are open to discussing new and differing ideas’ we listen as a member presents a new way of thinking about the music, we run an experiment to hear what the change sounds like, and then determine if we like it. This is something we have had to develop and refine over time with intention (clear working approach)

The four of us are diverse in our skill sets. Aside from all being dedicated musicians, some of us are great at focusing on the technical aspects of playing together. Some of us are better at focusing on musicality, phrasing, and work in rehearsal to bring out the drama of the music. Some of us are the organizers who schedule rehearsals, concerts, gigs, and other playing opportunities. We all focus on building relationships within our group. This is a key part that can’t be taken for granted within teams. The relationship building must be intentional and continuous (adequate levels of complementary skills).

There is also a strong sense of mutual accountability within the group. The team relies on me to know and understand my part and to execute it flawlessly under pressure. This requires dedication outside of rehearsal. Each member spends several hours a week preparing and practicing before we rehearse as a group.

Our individual passion for and playing experiences come together to make the group what it is. Leadership roles change constantly, with each person stepping up when needed, just as in the music. There are no soloists. The music demands that we step up and be heard at times, but it more often requires we hold back and blend with the other players to support the lead line.

The Big Finale

Our companies want high performance. It’s up to us to help create the environment. So I challenge you to write your team’s story. Does your team display the six key characteristics of a high performing team?  What steps are you taking to help create high performance in your organizations?

We want to hear from you! 
And if you’re having problems fine-tuning your team, don’t wait for the Agile Fairy to arrive, we’re here to help!